Header image courtesy of @hehehkg (via Instagram)
It is comforting to rediscover a childhood flavour—maybe an old family recipe dug out from the archives, or a dusty shelf in an out-of-town market that carries a few packets of your favourite but discontinued biscuits.
Luckily for Hongkongers, our childhood drink continues to be a staple in grocery stores and traditional tuck shops. Vitasoy, Hong Kong’s largest non-carbonated beverage manufacturer, is a familiar sight and flavour to all who grew up in Hong Kong. But how did this childhood staple come to be? Interestingly enough, the literal answer is war.
First established in Hong Kong in 1939, the original goal of Vitasoy (維他奶) was in direct response to the influx of Chinese refugees from mainland China, caused by the start of the Second World War. Dr Lo Kwee-seong was horrified by the malnutrition that he witnessed amongst refugee children, and after taking into consideration that most Chinese people are lactose intolerant, he turned to soy as an alternative.
Dubbed the “Chinese cow,” the humble soybean was a healthy, accessible, and affordable source of protein, oils, and calories. In reference to this original vision, after first establishing the company as HK Soya Bean Products, Lo later rebranded the company based on the Latin root word for “life”—“vita.”
Unfortunately, operations were halted from 1941 until the end of the Second World War due to the Japanese Occupation. After the Japanese surrendered the city, the first stages of the Vitasoy timeline were centred around nurturing and rebuilding. Its priorities reflected the Hong Kong government’s monumental task of rehabilitating Hong Kong and its citizens after the traumatising and horrific years of Japanese occupation.
In a mark of strange, poetic perfection, Lo and his soymilk company, originally established to offer fleeing refugees cheap but nutritious options during the war, was prepped and ready to step up to the task. Utilising a United Nations subsidy, the government purchased Vitasoy products to feed school children.
Hoping to expand past soy milk’s relegation as a substitution for dairy and a drink for school children, Vitasoy switched tactics in the 1970s, this time tapping into the growing soda industry. Lo believed that branding the company and its products simply as an alternative to milk was not enough, and so he pivoted into a new market.
His decision led to two major changes to operations—delivery and packaging. At the time, soy milk utilised the same method as milk delivery: house-to-house delivery via bicycle. Vitasoy launched a campaign under the idea that “It isn’t just soda that’s easy to drink!“ and that, as life improved for the public, even “Drinking had to be convenient.“ And thus, Vitasoy began stocking their wares in stores and tuck shops for increased public access. Interestingly, Watson—a popular local brand of soda, and the same brand that owns drugstores and dispensaries across town—was short on stock at the time, which fortuitously granted Vitasoy access to more shelf space.
An issue that persisted was the short shelf-life of soymilk, which was normally one day. It was solved with a two-pronged method: Tetra Brik Aseptic packaging (TAP) and ultra-high temperature (ULT) boiling. Soy milk was traditionally dispensed in glass bottles, which is still available in a handful of local cha chaan tengs and tuck shops today. In comparison, TAP was a new form of product packaging that stored beverages in several layers of paper and plastic-coated materials, a big step away from the traditional thin glass bottles. In addition, the formulation was boiled at a temperature that would kill bacteria, but not nutritional components. Increased hygienic security, coupled with convenience and flavour, provided a turning point to the exponential growth of Vitasoy.
In 1964, Lo was invited as a guest speaker in Tokyo to discuss his process of creating nutrient and protein-rich formulas at affordable prices. Although plenty of big companies sought to build cooperative relationships, it was not until 1993 that Vitasoy began expanding, purchasing factory space in the US and Shenzhen, and eventually establishing a seat at the table in mainland China for healthier beverages and soy milk.
By the end of the 1970s, Vitasoy began branching out from just soy milk, creating various juices and teas, and eventually creating the iconic Vita lemon tea and Vita chrysanthemum tea. Nowadays, their production line includes milk tea, juices, tea, water, and tofu products. With branches across mainland China, North America, and Australia, Vitasoy is a silent but well-established Asian giant in the global market.
Common introductions or conclusions used in stories about Hong Kong often include some reference to it being a “fast-paced city” or a “leading innovator in Asia,” all of which are true. And yet, these phrases don’t highlight the flip-side of living in such a changing city: the sense of unfamiliarity and uncertainty, the lack of stability, the need to hold onto a cornerstone or a piece of childhood that survives the aggressive and relentless march of modernisation and maturity. Vitasoy has become that mainstay for Hongkongers across the city and globally, a reminder of childhood trips to tuck shops in the school grounds or parks, of morning cha chaan teng noodles with a glass bottle of soy milk, and of trips to 7-Eleven in the middle of summer for a sweet lemon tea.
Rightly so, Vitasoy has realised its role in the childhood of multiple generations, and has tapped into that across various marketing campaigns for its brand. In particular, their 2015 “Stand By Me” campaign lingers at the back of Hongkongers’ minds. Over the years, Vitasoy has rolled out memorable slogans like “童年現在一般可愛、始終都係維他“ (“Childhood and the present are both pretty great, all because of Vita!”) and “何時何地都想念你“ (“Anytime, anyplace, I am thinking of you.”) to maximise on the element of nostalgia.
Evoking a timeless sense of comfort, whether it be for the tired businessman grabbing a pick-me-up beverage that somehow transports him back to the carefree days of his younger self, or the lonely university student living thousands of miles away from home, Vitasoy has carefully crafted a brand image that will live on through the decades. Rising from humble beginnings and the ruins of a war-torn city, Vitasoy is more than just a standard convenience store purchase—it plays a part in the collective memory of generations of Hongkongers, and a reflection of how far the city has come, and how far it can still go.